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It's no time for Democrats to think small

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The State of the Union looms and, with it, a shift in Barack Obama's agenda. Last year, the new president proposed big solutions to big problems. This year, as many of those solutions languish, he's come up with some proposals reminiscent of the cosmetics of Clintonism.

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After the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton reduced his ambitions to fending off GOP tax cuts and feeding his base with micro-initiatives. While today's Democrats still hold an 18-vote advantage in the Senate and more than four times that in the House, those lawmakers were frightened out of their wits last week by Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts. And Obama is unfortunately responding by proposing the kind of small programs that Clinton cooked up in his Dick Morris phase.

For the deficit hawks, Obama proposes a spending freeze that isn't a freeze but a cap on non-entitlement domestic spending. So long as aggregate spending isn't exceeded, some programs wane while others wax. For those who want more federal assistance to the beleaguered middle class, he offers an expansion to the child-care tax credit and a limit on student loan payments that are steps in the right direction, though smaller steps than they first appear.

There is much less emphasis on big-ticket items than in 2009, though big-ticket problems persist. What Obama will say and do on his signature initiative, health-care reform, is still a mystery. And when it comes to combating the Great Recession, the administration and Congress seem to be running out of steam. Last winter, with unemployment in the high single digits, they produced a stimulus package worth $787 billion. This year, with official unemployment at 10 percent (when underemployed and discouraged Americans are included, it's 17 percent), the House has passed a second stimulus worth $154 billion, while the Senate, according to The Post's Ben Pershing, is looking at a stimulus of around $80 billion. "There is 'big bill fatigue' in the Senate right now," one Democratic aide told Pershing. Good thing this Senate wasn't around during the Great Depression.

For now, the Democratic response to Massachusetts is to step on the economic gas pedal and brake simultaneously. "In the caucus meeting [following last Tuesday's election], people were saying we need jobs, jobs, jobs," one senior House Democrat told me Friday. "Then they said we need to shrink the deficit."

But here's the flaw in that thinking: The greatest decline in Democratic support has come from working-class voters who are bearing the brunt of the recession. Massachusetts polling by the Peter Hart firm shows that Democrat Martha Coakley carried the college-graduate vote by 5 percent but lost the non-college vote by 20 percentage points. Obama carried the Massachusetts non-college vote by 21 percentage points in 2008, which means that Democratic support among working-class voters fell 41 points in one year.

Some of that slide can be attributed to concern over the deficit, but most polls indicate that concern over unemployment is far greater. Some of this can be attributed to government actions that do more for Wall Street's profitability than to help Main Street. If they want to improve their prospects for November, Democrats need to get serious about jobs.

Unemployment's greatest increases have come in construction and manufacturing, which is why only four out of five men ages 25 to 54 had jobs in December -- the lowest level since the government began taking such measurements in 1948. To regain support from working-class Americans, Democrats need to back a stimulus bill that not only saves teachers' jobs but also helps to revitalize factories and construction projects.

Ideally, that stimulus should also patch the potholes in our decaying infrastructure. And Congress should act on Obama's good proposal to allot $5 billion in tax credits for green manufacturing so that the turbines powering our rapidly growing wind farms are made in the United States, not China. The $2.3 billion of such tax credits in last year's stimulus was oversubscribed, which is one reason the domestic content in wind-power equipment is rising. "Historically, we invented the technology," says Matt Rogers, senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, "but the manufacturing went overseas. Now, there's an incentive to bring it home."

If the Democrats wish to improve their prospects for November, they'll need many such incentives and a public jobs program to boot. If they simply wait for the banks to begin lending and for construction and manufacturing to bounce back of their own accord, they'll do so in the congressional minority -- and perhaps even under a Republican president.

meyersonh@washpost.com



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